Endless Highway: The Music of the Band
very tribute album has the same catch-22: if the band plays a song too close to the original, the performance pales in comparison, but if the group deviates too much, it alienates the typical fan by offering something too strange. On Endless Highway: The Music of the Band, the contributing artists are more likely to fall into the first grouping, but a few them put their own twists on the classics to place themselves as influenced by, but not derivative, of the Band.
Steve Reynolds manages this trick well with "Stage Fright," which seems like one of the Band's more inimitable tracks. Rather than chasing after Rick Danko's original heartbreaking vocal line, Reynolds pares the drama down to create the compilation's best performance. He backs his subtle delivery with simple instrumentation (including a smooth cello) and the song retains the meaning of the original while taking on a new feel. The cover works well in shedding new light on the track without distancing itself from the "tribute" concept.
Blues Traveler follows with "Rag Mama Rag." They keep the track fun and light, but their history weighs it down. Shortly into the song, it becomes apparent that John Popper's harmonica has to show up. Inevitably, it does, but rather than adding a little flavor to the tune, it sounds like a dated sound applied to an old tune. It's not unenjoyable, but it leaves the song out in space, without any meat to offer willing teeth.
Other performances are fine, but simply inessential. Lee Ann Womack takes on "The Weight," and while she delivers a quality vocal, she doesn't provide anything new for a song that's been done by too many artists over the last few decades. The song, of course, has to show up on a tribute album, and it's too strong a composition to fail. Unfortunately, its presence feels compulsory, and no by-the-book performance can change that.
Fortunately, enough artists provide unexpected moments to maintain some intrigue. Death Cab for Cutie's "Rockin' Chair" manages to sound, like Blues Traveler's track, somewhere between the original and the cover artist. In this case, however, the performance gains heft from that liminal position, sounding both spacey and grounded. The track pays homage by showing influence without giving full submission. That balance allows the disc to end on exactly the right mood.
The Band's genius stemmed largely from its ability to so fluidly merge so many styles, but on this tribute album, we mostly see artists playing with a single style—the Band's. While these groups have matched the sound of the music, they haven't matched its attitude, and over the course of the disc, it can become a bit of a burden, a reminder that we're only hearing a reflection of what we could be hearing. The compilation ends up uneven, with some good performances dragged down by some forgettable ones. In short, it's what you'd expect from a tribute album.